Nowadays in Mumbai, poetry readings at chic restaurants are not uncommon. The lights are dimmed, the mike switched on. An actor stands on a makeshift stage and performs the work of an established or upcoming poet. The audience listens enthralled. At least, that’s how I imagined it would be.
Then I attend one such well-publicized reading at Café Z. Seated in the first row, near a cluster of celebrities, I wait with bated breath for the reading to begin. It is to be the poetry of W.B. Yeats, accompanied by jazz piano. And all is melodious. Until the sponsored alcohol and the press arrive. Soon, the photographers form a sizeable chunk of the audience. While we, the listeners, struggle to remain attentive to the reading, we are blinded by the incessant camera flashes, our focus disrupted by the directives of irate journalists intent on capturing as many celebrity pictures as possible.
A woman stands up to get a better view. A photographer charges past. He drops her handbag. A pair of false teeth pop out of her bag and across his path. He kicks these aside in his haste to get the perfect picture.
Two wannabe models are seated in the row behind me. Through the reading, I hear snatches of their whispers: “Travelling first class around the world is such a bore.” “You really should be a film star instead of a model”, “Don’t you feel that this season brown is the new red?” On that bright note, I revert my attention to Yeats whose Prayer for my Daughter is being read.
The alcohol is sponsored. Smirnoff aficionados are present under the thinly veiled guise of being poetry lovers. They may be spotted strategically close to the bar, ensuring that they get their quota of liquor before the stream runs dry.
Post-reading is when the event takes off. The press takes this as its signal to get trigger-happy—photographing celebrities and asking Bandra’s version of Paris Hilton how she survives on her new lettuce diet. Hilton’s friend, hoping to get into the peek-ture, clings to her arm. And I find myself transported into the Elysian fields of schmoozing. “How did you like the reading?” I ask Mrs Gopi. “Oh wonderful, dah-ling,” she says, air-kissing me. “The performing actor is quite a catch, eh?”
By the bar, two women are sipping Cosmopolitans. One says, “The reading was nice, no?” “Why did you find it nice?” asks the other. “It sounded so good.” “But why?” persists the other. “Oh, it was sooo interesting,” she concludes with a vague wave of her hand.
Later, I spy a man who I have seen tucking into snacks at every art opening in the city. I call, “Helloo, what did you think?” He plucks out some chicken tikka and pineapple-cheese-cherry sticks and says, “The food’s okay.” “Not the food, silly, the reading,” I counter. “W. B. Yatish is not really my style,” he says.
The next day, I read in the papers: “Mumbai Bitten by Intellectual Bug. At the poetry reading at Café Z last night, a most unusual event occurred. Mumbai’s very own Ms Shine-Very-Brightly appeared in a sequinned red dress. She looked smashing. Who would have thought Ms Shine-Very-Brightly could pull off red so well.”
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